National / Politics

Japan may halve guest list for future cherry-blossom parties as Abe takes flak

Kyodo, JIJI

The government is considering halving the number of guests invited to future cherry blossom-viewing events as part of a broad review amid allegations that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has used the publicly funded gathering for his own benefit, officials said Thursday.

To address growing criticism about the yearly event held since 1952 to honor people such as athletes and celebrities for their accomplishments, the government may reduce its size by half from around 18,000 earlier this year, according to the officials.

Normally, the government invites about 10,000 guests to the event. But since Abe returned to power in 2012, the number of those invited and the amount the government spends have been increasing.

“It would be desirable to bring it down to a size that’s much smaller than what the public would feel is appropriate,” a government official said.

Abe on Wednesday decided to cancel next year’s gathering after opposition parties alleged his supporters were among those invited, raising questions about the use of taxpayers’ money.

On Friday, Abe told reporters that the government will offer explanations on the issue if members of the Diet demand it.

The decades-old event, held at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, will resume after the government conducts a comprehensive review of the criteria used in selecting guests and the budgeting for the event.

Speaking on Thursday at a news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he recognizes the need to make the selection process clearer and more transparent, but that the government is not necessarily considering abolishing the annual event, noting that ambassadors and other senior diplomats from other countries often participate.

“Many foreign guests, including those from embassies, come to the event so it’s important from the standpoint of promoting history, tradition and culture,” Suga said.

Despite the one-time cancellation, opposition party lawmakers are set to look into the allegation that Abe’s office in his Yamaguchi Prefecture constituency solicited supporters wishing to attend the cherry blossom-viewing event while on a package tour to Tokyo.

The opposition suspects the office collected what they view as a much lower fee than normal when it hosted a dinner party at Hotel New Otani for supporters traveling to Tokyo.

At a meeting of opposition parties, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan parliamentary affairs chief Jun Azumi raised doubts about the price of ¥5,000 set by Abe’s support group for participating in an event on the eve of the party.

Azumi said he asked the Tokyo hotel where the event took place about the costs to hold a similar event there. According to him, the hotel answered that the costs are “roughly between ¥15,000 and ¥20,000” per participant, adding that a stand-up party with 150 participants costs around ¥11,000 per person.

The stated event price of ¥5,000 is “impossible,” Azumi argued. “The very big question is how the difference (between the prices) was covered,” he said. If the Abe side partially made up the difference for the cost of the event, that could constitute a violation of the public office election law.

Abe said Friday that the hotel set the ¥5,000 price tag, which was paid by the attendees.

“The Abe office and the supporters’ organization paid no expenses at all,” the prime minister said.

Abe has denied involvement in the guest selection process for the annual event, saying the government — specifically the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretariat — drew up an invitation list based on recommendations from each ministry and agency.

Suga revealed it is customary for the secretariat to gather recommendations from the ruling parties and the Cabinet that includes the prime minister, deputy prime minister, as well as chief and deputy chief Cabinet secretaries.

When asked about how many guests had been invited to the party on the recommendation of the prime minister and those around him, Suga said the government has no specific numbers as the recommendation lists had already been discarded.